Sunday, April 24, 2011

Welcome, or welcome back.

Suddenly, we're less than a month from our CC trip to France, set for May 16, 2011. We have a good size group this year, lots of teachers and classes, a brand new set of scholarships for students, and as always, a very busy trip ahead. More on those details later--hopefully from a good range of writers this year.


But I want to jump in with to share some information from one of the texts for my Travel Writing course--Graham Robb's Discovery of France. This, before packing tips and itinerary might seem strange, but really, learning about the places we go is the basis of Study Abroad as education. That is, we could travel naively, and see many wonders, and perhaps not get in too much trouble, but much, too much, will be incomprehensible without some knowledge to build on. So--being an English teacher, I'm going to share what Robb has to say about the French language. Here goes:

Robb starts us with the 1794 investigation by Abbe Gregoire (the man who coined the term 'vandalism') into the status of French as a national language. Specifically, "the dialect of Paris and the Ile-de-France" had been made "the language of official documents" by the "Ordinances of Villers-Cotterets in 1539," and this was the "French" that the government was concerned with.

What the Abbe found was "a muddle of incomprehensible dialects," which might change even between nearby villages, so much so that "even plants and stars had their local names, as if each little region lived under a different sky." Worse, "while French was the language of civilized Europe, France itself had no more than 3 million 'pure' French-speakers (11% of the population." Travelers, even those who had boned up on their formal French, often were at a loss: "Large parts of France were barely French at all. Foreign visitors often claimed to find Latin more useful than French," while Lyons, for instance, "was a hive of micro-dialects." The Abbe found that "peasants...were 'too ignorant to be patriotic,'" and "the republican vision of a united country began to look like the fantasy of a small Parisian elite."

The French Academy had been busy trying to "tame" and regulate the language, determined "to eradicate the rabble of synonyms, onomatopoeias and vulgarities," for "French was supposed to be a product of the rational mind, a beautiful estate carved out of a jungle of strange sounds and obscenities."

Robb titles this chapter on language with various then-current forms of the word "yes," which I, barbarian that I am, render without any diacritical marks:

O Oc Si Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awe Jo Ja Oua

Although there was a major division between the "French" of the north and the Occitan of the South, even by the late 1800s, "about 55 major dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects had been identified, belonging to four distinct language groups: Romanic, Germanic, Celtic, and Euskaric/Basque." Napolean's Minister of the Interior had sent out a request for the tale of the Prodigal Son to be translated into the local patois, and got back 90 versions, while even the Virgin Mary, appearing at Lourdes, had chosen to speak in the local dialect rather than the purest, official French.

To the leaders in Paris, French was "the language of authority and everything else...a sign of chaos, barbarism or rebellion." A 200-year campaign ensued to give France one national language.

Into this arena, we will venture, offering up our best high school French.
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